In 586 BC, Jerusalem’s wall had been torn down and the gates had been burned by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was desolate and God worked through Nehemiah to rebuild. In 445 BC (141 years later), the walls were rebuilt in 52 days in spite of great opposition. A significant victory was achieved but the work was not over. In Nehemiah 8-10, the focus moves away from the rebuilding of the wall and focuses on the renewing of the Covenant. It is not enough that the people return to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall; they need to return to the Lord in repentance and faith.
In Nehemiah 8, Ezra the scribe reads the book of the law to the people. Remember, Ezra was the scribe who “had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ez 7:10). When the law was read, the people wept over their failure to keep the law. Ezra and the Levites comfort the people with God’s mercy and grace. The people rejoice and obey the Word of the Lord. Let’s look at this more closely as we consider the audience, the sermon, and the response.
We learn in Nehemiah 8:1 that the people were unified. Nehemiah records, “And all of the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate” (8:1). One indicator of God’s stirring His people is their unity; especially in the face of opposition and adversity. How do they respond when things get difficult? Do they turn from or to the Lord?
Why were they gathered in unity? The people “asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had commanded to Israel” (8:1). They wanted to hear from God. Another indicator that God is working in His people is their attentiveness and appetite for the Word of God. Our attention span needs to grow when it comes to prayer, Bible reading/study, and sermons. Paul wrote to Timothy telling him, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). We need to stay spiritually hungry for God and His Word. Nehemiah says, “all who could listen with understanding…those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law” (8:2-3).
The people were gathered to hear the Word of God. I love the image of Ezra standing behind a wooden podium (e.g., pulpit), “opening the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people.” You may have already figured this out, but this is the basis for our current layout. This is not a strict command for all churches, but the symbolism is rich. The preacher and the podium are elevated because the Bible is elevated. The podium holds the Bible and the preacher stands behind the Bible. The Bible is the central focus of our service because the Bible is divinely inspired, divine instruction that is true and trustworthy. We do not worship the Bible, we worship God alone. Having said that, I like how the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) speaks of the Bible: “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man…It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” The Jewish people, in this instance, would stand when the book of the law was read and then they would answer “Amen”, lift up their hands, and then bow low with their face on the ground.
The book of the law was preached. Ezra opened the book and other leaders provided understanding to all the people who were gathered. We read that they were “providing understanding of the law to the people while the people stood in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, explaining and giving insight, and they provided understanding of the reading” (8:7-8).
Initial Reaction (Grief)
The people wept when they heard the words of the law. This was an understandable reaction because they recognized they were not obeying the Lord’s commands. They knew that Jerusalem was in ruins because of their sin and idolatry. All of God’s curses had been justly carried out upon them and they were still not walking in complete obedience.
Appropriate Response (Joy)
The law was read and Ezra and the other leaders spoke gracious words to the people. Ezra knew that God is gracious and merciful and he said to the people: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep…Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength…Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved” (8:9-11).
Appropriate Response (Obedience)
“Then [they] were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law” (8:13). They were hungry for more. Nehemiah records for us: “They found written in the law how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month…The entire assembly of those who returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths…and there was exceedingly great gladness” (8:14.17). The Feast of Booths (Sukkot) is one of the main feasts in Judaism and it is held at the end of the harvest as they gather produce from their field. It was a seven-day festival in which they live in booths. Why were they to live in booths? Leviticus 23:42-43 says, “You are to live in booths for seven days…so that your generations may know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt to remind them of wandering in the wilderness.” Sukkot is a festival of remembrance.
It is remarkable that many years later Jesus would be at Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths and say, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, From his innermost being shall flow rivers of water” (John 7:37-38). Jesus didn’t read from the book of the law, He fulfilled the book of the law. He proclaimed “the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:19). That is cause for great rejoicing!